What lies beneath

What lies beneath

From the bedroom to the catwalk, underwear as outerwear is the trend that reveals all

Arriving at a party in your underwear may sound like something from a nightmare – but showing up in a silk slip dress, so dainty it might be a negligee? Now, that’s pure fashion.

This year, lingerie is not to be hidden away. On the contrary, designers have taken inspiration from underwear, peppering seductive details and bedroom fabrics throughout their Spring/Summer 2016 collections. Givenchy’s show included fluttery layers of lace in camisoles, skirts and gowns. At Céline, Phoebe Philo presented delicate slips that exposed flashes of the models’ breasts, while Balenciaga showed button-up silk bloomers and bras that appeared to be stitched over the clothes.

At the latter brand, it was creative director Alexander Wang’s final season – and a strikingly sexy collection was the perfect swansong. He told journalists backstage  that it was about exploring ‘things no one associates with me, things I’ve always wanted to venture into, like romanticism, sensuality and overt femininity.’ The governing principle for the show? ‘Seduce me.’

It was a feeling that echoed through the spring shows from New York to Paris. But though lingerie may be having a high-profile style moment this season, it’s a concept the fashion world has long been familiar with. ‘Lingerie a real cyclical trend,’ says fashion editor Ursula Lake. ‘Yes, it’s popular right now, but it was also big in 2013. It’s always bubbling away in  the background.  I can’t think of a Dolce  & Gabbana show  ever that hasn’t  used underwear.’

In fact, designers have been playing with visible lingerie since long before the era of the catwalk. Edwina Ehrman, curator of textiles and fashion at the V&A, has delved into the subject for the museum’s latest exhibition, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear. She cites 19th-century muslin dresses, most often associated with Jane Austen, as an early example. ‘They were totally transparent, but of course what you could see through a fine muslin dress was the underdress, or what we would call a slip. You get these glimpses of a tiny bit of flesh that you wouldn’t normally expect to see – so it’s  all about revealing  and concealing.’

Since these dresses only showed flashes  of the wearer’s arms or knees, they weren’t too scandalous – but from the mid-twentieth century onwards, the trend has been significantly more risqué. ‘In the 1960s, you get high fashion designers like Rudi Gernreich and Yves Saint Laurent presenting models with very lowcut backs, or in the case of Gernreich,  a swimming costume with no top to it,’  says Ehrman. In the 1980s, Vivienne Westwood, Malcolm McLaren and  Jean Paul Gaultier were inspired by punk and club culture to break the fashion rules again; they put corsets and suspenders on full display. ‘What they were doing was referencing corsets as fetishwear, corsets for bondage, corsets worn by burlesque showgirls – they were looking at the more seedy, deviant side  of sex,’ says Ehrman.

In contrast, 2016’s version of the trend  is sleaze-free. Forget lacing yourself into  a tight basque and concentrate instead  on the softer, flimsier associations of lingerie: silk and lace, tiny buttons and spaghetti straps. This season’s underwear-as-outerwear is about all things luxurious and sensual – and it’s an aesthetic with a large dollop of 1990s simplicity. Rather  than Madonna in her Gaultier cone bra, think of Kate Moss  in the heyday of  her Calvin Klein campaigns.

‘I think there are lots of tips that you can take from the catwalk,’

Says Lake. ‘From Givenchy, I would lift the lace trim skirt; you could layer a slip under a pencil skirt, and show it through a split. I also love what Balenciaga did, pairing bra tops with more sporty, loungey trousers.’ In  fact, if fashion is the outlet for your inner exhibitionist, then underwear as outerwear might be your ultimate trend. ‘If you’ve got an amazing midriff,’ adds Lake, ‘why not?’

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear  is at London’s V&A Museum from 16 April until 12 March 2017; vam.ac.uk


The style icons who brought their underwear out to play

Marilyn Monroe

As the irresistibly sexy Sugar Kane Kowalczyk in 1959’s Some Like It Hot, Marilyn wore a wardrobe that was mainly sheer and barely there.

Princess Diana

At the 1996 Met Gala, Diana made headlines by showing up in a navy silk dress with black lace, designed by John Galliano for Dior.


Jean Paul Gaultier’s conical corset arguably gave Madonna the most iconic fashion moment of her career. She wore it throughout her 1990 Blonde Ambition tour.

Kate Moss

Never one to play by a dress code, Kate wore this very sheer metallic slip dress to an Elite Model Agency party  in 1993, and looked like she couldn’t care less.

Carrie Bradshaw

In Sex and the City, Sarah Jessica Parker’s fashion-obsessed character never shied away from a visible bra strap, making underwear as important a part of her outfit  as any other.

  • Words: Hattie Crisell

  • Photography: Catwalking.com, Rex features, Bed jacket, made by Rosa Pichon,France, ca. 1930-1935, Negligee, c. 1932, bustle (c) both Victoria and Albert Museum,London